SETTING HIS SIGHTS on becoming the longest-serving German chancellor in history, surpassing even the redoubtable Otto von Bismarck, 67-year-old Helmut Kohl now says he will run in October 1998 for a fifth four-year term. If he wins and serves his time, his two-decade tenure in office will be longer than Bismarck's by a full year.
Like so much that has happened during a career that made him Europe's senior statesman, Mr. Kohl's announcement took by surprise those who constantly underestimate him.
When he first became chancellor, he was derided as a country bumpkin hardly in the intellectual class of such predecessors as Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt. When he ran and ran and ran for re-election, his detractors constantly predicted defeats that never came. And in 1990, when Mr. Kohl made his mark as the "chancellor of reunification" between West Germany and East Germany, he swept all before him by his sheer daring.
He bought off the Russians, spent billions in areas damaged by Communist rule and persisted in his efforts to anchor Germany in a united Europe. It hasn't been easy, and it won't be easy. The German economy is weighted down by the welfare state erected by Bismarck in the 1870s. Social security and health care costs, high union wages and an oversized public sector have rendered Germany, like so much of Europe, uncompetitive in a world dominated by North America and East Asia.
Lecturing his compatriots like a kindly uncle, Mr. Kohl has called for hard work and sparser benefits. But the Christian Democratic leader has been unable to end an upward spiral of joblessness that now pegs the unemployment rate at 12.8 percent -- well over double the 5.3 percent U.S. rate. His opponents on the left blame him for the economic ills brought on by a social system they defend.
Mr. Kohl can have few illusions about whether he can solve these domestic problems. His urge to stay in power is rooted more in dreams of European cohesion and the extension eastward of NATO and the European Union.
Mr. Kohl is not the imperialist "Iron Chancellor" that von Bismarck was when he conducted an intricate diplomacy that united the various German states in the 19th century. But if he stays around long enough to help work out a stable post-Cold War arrangement with Russia, his place in history will be that much grander.
Pub Date: 4/06/97